Pakistan’s water scene seems full of contradictions as well as incapacity on the part of authorities concerned to not only secure its natural resources but utilise them efficiently. The country is fast heading towards being declared a water-scarce country, from its current status of a water-stressed nation. But, at the same time, a huge quantity of rainwater is wasted almost every year after monsoon heavy showers wreak havoc on large spates of populations, both in urban and rural areas.
The country has been issued warnings about water scarcity separately by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR). Pakistan has been told very clearly that it would lose its freshwater resources in just four years time, in 2025, if it does not take corrective measures soon.
According to official data, the per capita surface water availability of 5,260 cubic metres per year in 1951 had turned into around 1,000 cubic metres in 2016, and that is likely to further drop to about 860 cubic meters by 2025. The PCRWR says that Pakistan had reached the “water stress line” in 1990 and crossed the “water scarcity line” in 2005.
According to Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources officials, the Indus river system receives an annual influx of about 134.8 million acre feet (MAF) of water. The mean annual rainfall ranges from less than 100 millimetres to over 750 millimetres. Surface water comprises glacial melt up to 41pc, snowmelt up to 22pc and rainfall 27pc. Collectively, that amount of water should meets all freshwater needs of the country if the precious commodity is used judiciously and efficiently, believe water experts.
As far as the groundwater is concerned, the country is currently extracting 50MAF from underground aquifers — which has already crossed the sustainable limit of safe yield. Syed M Abubakar, an environmental journalist, says Pakistan’s water woes can largely be bifurcated into issues of quality and quantity. The water coming into our systems over the past decades has not changed much, but its demand has soared due to an exponential rise in our population. Existing reservoirs’ storage capacity cannot sustain the population boom while its capacity has also been reduced over the years, he believes.
The recent census results say the country’s population has reached 207.7 million, which will cross the 395-million mark, on its 100th anniversary in 2047. With this fast-rising population, the demand for water will increase exponentially. According to an IMF report, the demand for water is on the rise in Pakistan and it is projected to reach 274 million acre-feet (MAF) by 2025, while the supply is expected to remain stagnant at 191MAF, resulting in a demand-supply gap of approximately 83MAF.
A report, released by the PCRWR last year, said that Lahore’s population of over 11 million is supplied with 1.29MAF of groundwater daily, which is extracted through hand-pumps, motor pumps, and tube-wells. In 1960, there were about 20,000 tube-wells in Punjab, and today, water experts say there are more than a million.
The WWF-Pakistan said in its report, issued recently, the depletion of groundwater in Lahore has reached critical levels with the rate of about 2.5 to 3.0 feet per year. The water table, in the central part of the city, has receded below 130 feet, and in the Gulberg area, it has fallen below 147 feet approximately. It is projected to recede below 230 feet in most areas by 2025, if groundwater is not conserved and the present trend of extraction continues.
Khalid Mohtadullah, a civil engineer by training with vast experience in water resources policy, says a lot of problems around water scarcity can be resolved if Pakistan invests in water savings by building storages at all levels. “We are storing less than 8pc of the available surface water flows. After meeting the environmental flow requirements of the river system, we still permit the rest of the surplus flow to go to the sea unutilised,” the water expert regrets.
He believes that Pakistan should be storing around 40pc of the surface water flows to have a sustainable irrigation system. Given the seriously uneven water availability in our rivers during the year, the lack of adequate storage at all levels makes it almost impossible to manage our water resources satisfactorily, he adds.
He says that in case the lower riparian plays the dying delta card, when 75 to 80pc of water is available in just three months of the year, and only a trickle in the remaining nine months, the principle that “every drop stored is a drop saved” will help keep the delta alive and stop sea water intrusion. The stored water can always be released in a consistent manner around the year or as required according to sound principles of equity and good water management, he believes.
A good initiative launched by the Punjab government last year made the people of Lahore heave a sigh of relief when the Water and Sanitation Agency (WASA) installed the city’s first rainwater storage system. For the pilot project on Lawrence Road, a concrete tank was installed underground in the nearby Bagh-e-Jinnah park. New drains were laid in the surrounding roads to channel water into the storage tank.
The system can store 6.4 million litres of water, which will be used to water the park and surrounding areas. The project’s catchment area spans over 25 acres – home to around 30,000 people, with roads used by more than 40,000 motorists every day. It cost Rs150 million and is estimated to save Rs23 million every year from flood damage, a WASA official said. Lahore receives around 600mm of rain per annum, and rainwater harvesting can solve the city’s depleting water resources problem.
Experts believe that harvesting rainwater is essential to institutionalise the response to yearly urban floods and with a little ingenuity can turn a crisis into an opportunity to utilise the water resource and recharge our depleting groundwater aquifers. “The experience of the Lahore pilot project has been very good and we are now planning another 25 sites with rainwater collection tanks at points of depression in the city,” an official said.
However, Muhammad Ashraf, Chairman of the Pakistan Council for Research in Water Resources, says that the best way to use rainwater is to recharge the groundwater with the collected rainwater, instead of storing it in tanks for reuse. Recharging is cost-effective, he said, and can help address urban flooding and improve the water table.